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Downtown Upturn

The Strip’s alternative has plenty of the V-word.

Downtown Upturn

Think you’ve seen it all?

Well, pardner, until you’ve seen a grown man wearing a diaper—and only a diaper—while licking a Shirley Temple lollipop while directing tourists to a restaurant that gives gratis grub to anyone 350 pounds or heavier while a Def Leppard cover band on one stage is dueling decibels with a Bon Jovi cover band on the other stage, then you ain’t seen nothing.

And you definitely ain’t seen Downtown Las Vegas.

At least not lately.

For decades, Fremont Street and the surrounding area was Andrew Ridgeley to the Strip’s George Michael, the Sonny to its Cher, the Garfunkel to its Simon, the Dunkleman to its Seacrest. Second banana? Yes, but that’s because there were only two bananas in the bunch. Had Reno or Mesquite or Laughlin—or perhaps Pahrump—been a smidge closer to the state’s epicenter, Downtown might have been even further down.

That was then. Then is now: Downtown Las Vegas finds itself in the midst of a renaissance, one that’s fueled in equal parts by innovation, gentrification, the Zappos halo, and some good old-fashioned clean, dirty fun.

More about those in a bit.

For now, chew on this: Through the first 11 months of 2017, gaming revenue in Downtown Las Vegas was up 12 percent versus the same period in 2016. And that’s no anomaly. In fact, in aggregate, in four of the last five years, in casinos like the D and the Plaza and the Four Queens, gaming revenue has increased over the previous year. The only exception was 2013. Even with that hiccup, Downtown casino revenue jumped from $493 million in 2010 to an estimated $635 million last year.

“Downtown has led the way with the highest percentage growth in Clark County the past three years,” says Michael Lawton, senior research analyst for the Nevada Gaming Control Board. “And with new investments being made throughout the Downtown corridor over the last several years, we are starting to see this begin to spill over into the gaming floors of the Downtown operators.”

Spill, baby, spill.

The first—if not literally, at least symbolically—major capital influx this decade came in 2013, when online shoe retailer and business-culture icon Zappos transplanted its corporate headquarters from an office park in Henderson, Nevada to the old city hall building on Stewart Avenue. Others followed, and others followed them. Next thing you know, there’s the Container Park, the Mob Museum, the SlotZilla Zip Line, the Heart Attack Grill (of the aforementioned 350-pound rule), and most recently, the Fear the Walking Dead attraction.

As goes the neighborhood, so go the neighbors. The fun, hip vibe Downtown has attracted fun, hip inhabitants. The kind who drink at speakeasies with no signs out front. The kind who sip their lattes and stroke their goatees. The kind who—gasp!—walk to work. The kind who turn some ratty old shop into an elegant, upscale coffee house. (Yes, PublicUS, we’re looking at you.)

The kind that make Downtown fun again.

And they’re not doing it alone. Today, and every other day, the canopy above Fremont Street serves as a circus big top, with anything and everything going on—and coming off—underneath it. Musicians. Contortionists. Kiosks stocked with trinkets and baubles. Some sort of mobile barbecue eatery. Scantily clad hotties posing for pictures (and that’s just the men).

And, every 100 feet or so, a slushee machine that dispenses copious amounts of pina coladas and frozen margaritas.

“I think the whole scene out there has had a huge effect on gaming and hotel revenue,” says Glenn Casale, the director of casino operations at Binion’s and the Four Queens. “There’s something going on every night, and it’s reflected in our numbers.”

He should know. Better than most, as in his 11 years of running casinos Downtown, Casale often finds himself awash in Fremont’s fun and frivolity. “I’ve been to almost every major concert we’ve had down here,” he says. “And keep in mind, everything out there is free. You can’t beat it for entertainment value.”

Casale repeats the V-word—more than once—when explaining the other ingredients in Downtown’s revival.

“We’ve got tremendous gaming value Downtown,” he says. “We offer lower-limit tables than you’ll find on the Strip, and our payouts are generally better. And it’s the same thing on the restaurant side. We’ve got some terrific gourmet restaurants, and the value’s there as well. You’re not going to pay $8 for a beer or $12 for a baked potato.”

Man, that must be some tater.

When it comes to the V-word, it’s hard to B-word the F-word. As in free. And, in closing, Casale takes a gentle jab at the big Strip resorts with two more examples of finding value Downtown.

“Our properties don’t charge resort fees,” he says. “The room rate is the room rate. And something else we don’t charge for is parking. If you want bang for your buck, you can’t beat it here.”

Roger Snow is a senior vice president with Light & Wonder. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Light & Wonder or its affiliates.

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